Do Mixed Messages Dilute Trust?

After reading the survey results in this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, in addition to  media coverage, I wonder if the survey confirms that mixed messages dilute trust. In the US, where trust is down across the board according to the survey, the well-coordinated messages from the Republicans, Tea Party and conservative pundits contradict everything stated by the Obama administration and his supporters in the media.

For instance, the arguments for creating an affordable healthcare system for all were rejected by people who don’t want their tax dollars to pay for someone else’s well-being. Canada’s  public healthcare system was also falsely presented as irreparably broken and used as a negative example of exactly what Americans want to avoid.

So did this contentious debate in addition to other partisan messages make it harder for Americans to trust anyone? Maybe.

And what about China? Trust in government increased from 74% to 88%. As far as I know, this emerging world leader’s state-controlled media helps the government deliver consistent messages. There aren’t as many mixed political statements, I imagine.

So why is trust in Russia so low at 39% this year versus  38% in 2010? After all, the Russian government also controls the media for the most part. Perhaps it has to do with Vladimir Putin’s self-appointed role as Prime Minister which dilutes President Dmitry Medvedev’s authority. Maybe Russians aren’t sure who’s in charge or maybe they don’t trust a political system that allows self-appointments.

As any communications pro will tell you, message consistency is key. Keep it simple and ensure you understand the needs of your clients, customers, etc. before you say and do anything.

Honest transparency and credibility also help.  But apparently even consistent messaging can overcome the lack of these two things, at least when it comes to governments.

Mass Media Still Massively Infleuntial

When I first saw General Motor’s CEO, Ed Whitacre on a TV ad saying GM had paid back the government loans five years early I thought “damn, that’s impressive.” Apparently a lot of other consumers also liked what they saw, according to polling firms.

But wait a minute, it turns out that these GM ads were lies or exaggerations according to several US Republicans and Steven Rattner, the former head of President Barrack Obama’s automotive task force. GM is in fact paying back the loan with bailout money that it received from the federal government in the first place.

So as editors and politicians comment on the inaccuracies of the GM ad, the beleaguered car maker enjoys a slight lift in public perception. Why? Because a mass media ad campaign still influences opinion.

Typically PR/earned media drives reputation repair. Skeptical consumers usually distrust ads from big, bad companies emerging from recent crises. Therefore nice things said by journalists and other third-parties are needed to change perception.

So how is it that the GM ads have improved public perception? Do Americans have a pent up desire for good news after so much bad news from this iconic brand? Is it wishful thinking in hopes of lower unemployment?

Could be, but what’s more likely is that the mainstream media ads featuring an earnest Mr Whitacre persuaded people to believe that GM had improved. Which perhaps isn’t far from the truth since it’s hard to go lower than bankruptcy.

So when pollsters asked consumers about the ads, a small majority said the company is making progress. Which is a victory for GM. It just needs to also focus on what’s good about the brand, sell more cars and generate some good news. Otherwise this perceived success might be seen as a credibility issue.

Issues Management Lessons

What’s the PR lesson from Conan O’Brien’s battle with NBC?

O’Brien’s emotionally charged jokes and attacks on the network bosses have been poignant and hilarious at times. Last Friday’s Tonight Show was no exception as O’Brien didn’t pull any punches:  “In the press this week, NBC has been calling me every name in the book. In fact, they think I’m such an idiot they now want me to run the network,” O’Brien said.

The Hollywood publicity game is certainly different from corporate PR. For starters, publicists tend to trade on softer news. That said, handling issues such as the O’Brien vs NBC fight provides some good lessons.

Boardroom battles can be influenced by headlines and often repeated sound bites. O’Brien has mastered this truism via monologues delivered to a growing, captive audience.

It’s easier to identify with someone we know and understand. The NBC execs are basically faceless while O’Brien has repeatedly told his side of the story. Even if you didn’t watch the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien before and just started tuning in, it wouldn’t take long to decide if you bought his message or not.

Of course it helps that O’Brien is at the top of his game; a talented, funny pitchman can make people buy just about anything.

The third lesson, which is a good reminder for big businesses, is Main Street and mainstream media are wary of corporations. If your company’s credibility is suspect in light of an employee or customer complaint then be prepared for an issue that may blow up.

No matter what the NBC leadership says and even if their decision to juggle their late evening talent was the best solution for a ratings problem, the big corporation is looking bad and we get to watch.

Lastly, working with big personalities requires a strong communications lead who can bring smart ideas to emotionally charged situations. O’Brien looks to be making the most of his decisions on his way to victory. However, not every client or lead spokesperson can as effectively operate in the eye of a storm. Communications teams need to be prepared to offer wise guidance.

Of course the network is also reaping the benefit if big ratings while its dirty laundry gets aired and NBC and its shareholders may get the last laugh. However, if O’Brien starts another show on another network and NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno returns to mediocrity, then the O’Brien fiasco may be another example of how bad communications and issues management are bad for business.